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Piecing together the story of the weapons that weren't


By Charles J. Hanley, The Associated Press

Beneath the giant dome of a Baghdad palace, facing his team of scientists and engineers, George Tenet sounded more like a football coach than a spymaster, a coach who didn't know the game was over.

Weapons of mass destruction were not found by these U.N. weapons inspectors, right, in Baghdad Feb. 5, 2003, nor since.
By David Guttenfelder, AP

"Are we 85% done?" the CIA boss demanded. The arms hunters knew what he wanted to hear. "No!" they shouted back. "Let me hear it again!" They shouted again.

The weapons are out there, Tenet insisted. Go find them.

Veteran inspector Rod Barton couldn't believe his ears. "It was nonsense," the Australian biologist said of that February evening last year, when the then-chief of U.S. intelligence secretly flew to Baghdad and dropped in on the lakeside Perfume Palace, chandelier-hung home of the Iraq Survey Group.

"It wasn't that we didn't know the major answers," recalled Barton, whose account matched that of another key participant. "Are there WMD in the country? We knew the answers."

In fact, David Kay, quitting as chief of the U.S. hunt for WMD, or weapons of mass destruction, had just delivered the answer to the world. The inspectors were 85% finished, Kay said, concluding: "The weapons do not exist."

The story of the weapons that weren't there, the prelude to war, was over, but a long post-mortem is still unfolding — of lingering questions in Washington, of revelations from investigations, leaks, first-person accounts. Some 52% of Americans believe the Bush administration deliberately misled them about the presence of banned arms in Iraq, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in June.

Hans Blix, U.N. inspector, says Washington's "virtual reality" about Iraq eventually collided with "our old-fashioned ordinary reality." Now, drawing from findings of the Iraq Survey Group and other official investigations, from U.N., U.S., Iraqi and British documents, from Associated Press interviews and on-scene reporting, from books by Blix and others, it's possible to reconstruct much of the "ordinary reality" of this extraordinary story, one that has changed the course of history.

By Mario Tama, Getty Images
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, left, and Hans Blix listen as Colin Powell make a case against Iraq on Feb. 5, 2003. Blix battled U.S. impatience for war while leading inspections in Iraq.

Destroyed in 1991

The story could begin behind the creamy stone walls of another palace, the hilltop Hashemiyah outside Amman, Jordan, where in August 1995 a prize Iraqi defector was pouring out for interrogators whatever they wanted to know about Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction.

Hussein Kamel, son-in-law of President Saddam Hussein, had headed Iraq's advanced arms programs during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when the Baathist regime unleashed chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Iraqi civilians in rebellious Kurdish areas.

What the U.N., American and other debriefers learned from Kamel led to headline-making successes for U.N. inspectors as they tracked down banned arms-making gear inside Iraq.

But an interrogation transcript shows he told them something else as well, something they questioned and kept to themselves: All Iraqi WMD were destroyed in 1991.

Hussein Kamel, soon to be killed by fellow clansmen as a traitor, was telling the truth.

The U.N. experts had entered Iraq in 1991, after U.S.-led forces drove Iraq's invasion army from Kuwait in a lightning war, and the U.N. Security Council required the defeated nation to submit to inspections and destruction of its unconventional arms.

The inspectors withdrew in late 1998, in a dispute over access to sites. By then, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) teams could report that Iraq's nuclear program, which never built a bomb, had been dismantled. As for chemical and biological weapons, only scattered questions remained about possible hidden stockpiles.

In fact, as President George W. Bush took office 25 months later, the CIA was reporting, "We do not have any direct evidence" Baghdad was rebuilding its WMD programs.

Baghdad on his mind

Bush, however, concentrated on Iraq's capital.

The new president quickly called an inner Cabinet meeting to discuss Iraq as a destabilizing force in the Mideast, ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill recalls in the book, The Price of Loyalty. Tenet unrolled a grainy satellite photo of an Iraqi factory, suggested it was making banned weapons, but said his CIA didn't really know, O'Neill said.

Washington and Baghdad had glowered at each other throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, but for a decade it was largely a cold war. Now Bush was ending this White House meeting by ordering Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to study possible military action, O'Neill said. Soon U.S. policymakers began hearing more about Iraq.

In April 2001, Pentagon intelligence said satellites spotted construction at old nuclear sites. Was Iraq resuming bomb research? That same month a CIA report told of another "indicator": Iraq was shopping for thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes, said to be useful as cores of centrifuges to enrich uranium, the stuff of atom bombs.

Then a shipment of the tubes was intercepted in neighboring Jordan, news that upset Baghdad's military industry chief. Abdel Tawab Huweish needed those tubes — 3 feet long, 3 inches wide — to make standard artillery rockets. He now ordered another metal be found, one that wouldn't arouse U.S. suspicions, Huweish later told U.S. arms investigators.

On April 11, 2001, a day after the classified CIA report was distributed, the Energy Department filed a swift dissent. Energy, home of U.S. centrifuge specialists, said the tubes' dimensions weren't well-suited for centrifuges, and were more likely meant for artillery rockets. The U.N. nuclear agency, the Vienna-based IAEA, told U.S. officials the same.

Evidence shows Iraq in 2001 had little interest in nuclear "reconstitution." In one captured document from that May, Iraqi diplomats in Kenya reported to Baghdad that a Ugandan businessman had offered uranium for sale, but they turned him away, saying U.N. sanctions forbade it.

Other 'indicators' surface

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for months had been receiving reports from German intelligence about an Iraqi defector, code-named "Curveball," who claimed to have worked on a project to build concealed bioweapons labs atop truck trailers.

Around this time, in June 2001, the trailers that U.S. officials later thought confirmed his account were ordered built at the al-Kindi factory in northern Iraq, inspectors would learn. Contract No. 73/MD/RG/2001 called not for secret weapons labs, however, but for two trailer units to make hydrogen for weather balloons. By this time, too, U.S. intelligence had been informed that Curveball was a possible alcoholic and "out of control."

The tubes tale, Curveball's account and other questionable stories about Iraqi WMD would survive for two years, in presidential speeches and newspaper headlines, on the road to war.

For now, in the summer of 2001, Iraq was back-page news. But Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, assured an interviewer, "Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen." By summer's end, in the traumatic aftermath of Sept. 11's terror, he was in the crosshairs.

Post-9/11

On the day after Sept. 11, the talk in the White House Situation Room was of "getting Iraq," says former White House anti-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke. Clarke's memoir says an insistent Bush ordered him to look for "any shred" to tie Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks — even though U.S. agencies knew al-Qaeda was responsible and Iraq wasn't linked to the terror group.

By Alex Wong, AFP/Getty Images
Joseph Wilson reported the story of Iraq receiving uranium from Nigeria was unfounded.

The immediate target was Afghanistan, however, invaded by U.S. forces in October 2001, and as 2002 began the WMD case against Iraq remained unimpressive. In his annual unclassified review, Tenet didn't even cite evidence of an imminent Iraqi nuclear threat. But Vice President Dick Cheney apparently thought he'd found such evidence, in a DIA report.

It told of a deal in 2000 in which Iraq bought 500 tons of uranium concentrate from Niger in central Africa. The information came from Italian intelligence, based on what it said was an official Niger document. Because of Cheney's interest, the CIA dispatched a seasoned Africa hand, ex-diplomat Joseph Wilson, to Niger to check it out.

After dozens of interviews, Wilson reported back that the story appeared unfounded. The State Department's intelligence bureau also deemed it implausible. In addition, the text of the supposed Niger document, transcribed for the Americans by the Italians, contained misspellings and mistaken titles for people that should have been easily detectable.

It was a forgery. But "Niger uranium" had won a place in the case against Iraq.

Building a coalition

In Iraq itself, the government was far from resurrecting a bomb program: In April 2002 workers in the western desert were busy smelting down the last gear from a long-defunct uranium-enrichment project, U.S. inspectors later learned.

Around this time, U.S. satellite reconnaissance was doubled over suspected Iraqi WMD sites, and analysts soon reported stepped-up activity, suggesting renewed production, at possible chemical weapons factories. What they apparently didn't realize, however, was that activity was being photographed more frequently — not that there necessarily was more activity.

The White House, meanwhile, worked on a political plan.

Leaked British documents show that Prime Minister Tony Blair told Bush at his Texas ranch in April 2002 that London would support military action to oust Saddam. But the British set conditions: Washington should seek re-entry of U.N. inspectors — which Saddam was expected to refuse — and then Security Council authorization for war.

Blair's Cabinet fretted. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in the secret minutes of a July 2002 meeting, observed that the case for war was "thin" but Bush had made up his mind. Intelligence chief Richard Dearlove, fresh from high-level Washington talks, also told the 10 Downing St. session that war had become inevitable, and U.S. intelligence was being "fixed" around this policy.

Blair and U.S. officials now deny war was predetermined and intelligence "fixed" to that end. From midsummer 2002 on, however, the Bush administration sharply stepped up its anti-Iraq rhetoric, along with U.S. air attacks on Iraqi defenses, done under cover of patrols over the "no-fly zones," swaths of Iraqi airspace denied to Iraqi aircraft. It also stepped up its citing of questionable intelligence.

As early as July 29, Rumsfeld spoke publicly of reports of Iraqi bioweapons labs "on wheels in a trailer" that can "make a lot of bad stuff."

A second Iraqi exile source had echoed Curveball's talk of such trailers. He was judged a fabricator by the CIA in early 2002, but by July his statements were back in classified U.S. reports. As for Curveball, whose veracity was never checked by the DIA, within three months his German handlers would be telling the CIA he was unreliable, a "waste of time."

As the summer wore on, Cheney struck an urgent, unequivocal tone in public.

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," the vice president told veterans assembled at an Opryland hotel in Nashville.

In an unusual move, Cheney shuttled to the CIA through mid-2002 to visit analysts 10 times, according to Patricia Wald, a member of the presidential investigative commission headed by Judge Laurence Silberman and ex-U.S. Sen. Charles Robb. The commission concluded analysts "worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

Strong as aluminum

That conventional wisdom took on more urgency on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002, when the lead article in The New York Times, citing unnamed administration officials, said Iraq "has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb."

The "tubes" story had been resurrected. Condoleezza Rice went on the TV talk circuit that morning saying the tubes were suited only for uranium centrifuges. Four days later in New York, President Bush was at the marble podium of the U.N. General Assembly, demanding the world body take action on Iraq or become "irrelevant." He, too, cited the aluminum tubes — proof of danger.

But neither the Times story nor administration officials hinted at the background debate over whether the tubes, in reality, were meant for Huweish's rockets. In fact, a CIA officer had recently suggested obtaining dimensions of an Italian rocket on which the Iraqi design was based, to compare them with the tubes. His idea was rejected.

As U.S. officials built up the threat, Saddam handed them a surprise: Iraq would allow Blix's U.N. inspectors back unconditionally.

Bush promptly labeled the Sept. 16 announcement a "ploy." But Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, told the General Assembly his country was "totally clear" of banned arms.

White Paper and not read

Democratic senators, wary as war momentum built in Washington, demanded a comprehensive intelligence report on Iraq. The CIA and other agencies patched together a classified National Intelligence Estimate, made available to lawmakers in early October.

Its unclassified version, a 25-page White Paper, was packed with "probablys," "mays" and "coulds," uncertainties that somehow led to certainties: "Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction programs," and "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons."

It would eventually emerge that the DIA, a month before the White Paper, had reported there was "no reliable information" on Iraqi chemical weapons production, and it didn't know the nature, amounts or condition of any biological weapons.

Across the Atlantic, Blair's government issued an assessment like the U.S. estimate, with conclusions unsupported by evidence.

"We were told there was other intelligence that we, the experts, could not see," senior British government analyst Brian Jones has since said. It later became clear such intelligence never existed, Jones said.

The Australian biologist Barton, a 1990s weapons inspector who by 2002 was a top Blix aide, was amazed at the British report's unexplained claim that Iraq could "deploy" chemical or biological weapons "within 45 minutes" — a claim picked up by Bush in a radio address.

Over an Irish-pub dinner in New York, Barton asked old friend David Kelly, a British bioweapons specialist, how he could have allowed something "so silly" in the report. "He just shook his head and said something like, 'People put in what they want to put in,'" Barton recalled.

Months later Kelly would commit suicide, caught in a political furor as a source for news reports that the WMD dossier was "sexed up."

The 93-page classified U.S. report had more qualifiers than the White Paper. But Wald says her commission learned that only 17 Congress members read the lengthier estimate. On Oct. 10-11, the two houses voted overwhelmingly to authorize Bush to use military force against Iraq.

U.N. debunking

Then the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted Nov. 8 to send Blix's inspectors to Iraq with expanded powers. It denied Washington "trigger" authority, however, to attack if the Americans deemed Iraq in violation of the resolution.

Blix knew U.S. leaders were impatient. In his book on the crisis, he writes that he met with Cheney at the White House and was told inspections could not go on forever, and Washington "was ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament" — that is, forcible disarmament.

On Nov. 27, 2002, the U.N. teams returned to Iraq. Springing surprise inspections across the countryside, the experts soon were debunking U.S. claims. At the Fallujah II chemical plant, for example, caught in a satellite's camera lens in the October U.S. estimate, they found the production line long broken-down.

By December, Saddam was informing senior generals in secret meetings that Iraq truly had no chemical or biological arms, U.S. investigators later learned. Baghdad's troops would have to fight without them.

Back in Washington, WMD "indicators" were being further undercut. "The Administration will ultimately look foolish — i.e. the tubes and Niger!" an Energy Department analyst told a colleague in an e-mail later uncovered by Senate Intelligence Committee investigators.

State of the Union

Preparing for Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, and sensing the weakness, Rice's national security staff asked the CIA for more. It responded with the report of a Niger uranium sale.

By Tim Dillon, USA TODAY
President Bush used shaky information in his State of the Union address in 2003. Vice President Dick Cheney, back, later told a TV audience that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons.

That story had grown still more dubious since Wilson's Niger visit 11 months earlier.

In October 2002, the State Department had obtained a copy of the original "Niger document." Its analysts told sister agencies they suspected forgery, and in mid-January alerted all that it "probably is a hoax." In October, too, Tenet had warned Rice's deputy, Stephen Hadley, against using the alleged uranium sale in a Bush speech.

This time, however, Hadley accepted the uranium nugget — though attributed to the British — to bolster the State of the Union speech.

The tubes story also had slipped deeper into murkiness. State Department intelligence was siding with Energy in viewing them as likely rocket casings. The CIA arranged for centrifuge-like testing of the tubes in January, and they seemed to fail, only to supposedly pass after a "correction" was made.

On Jan. 28, 2003, with the world listening, Bush delivered his annual address.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said. "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

The U.S. chief executive also claimed Iraq had mobile bioweapons labs, but this story of Curveball's would fall further apart in the coming days.

On Feb. 3, 2003, word went up the CIA ladder that this Iraqi informant's German handlers "cannot vouch for the validity of the information." The next day, Senate investigators found, a CIA superior e-mailed a worried analyst that "this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say."

Mr. Powell goes from Washington

The timing was critical — the eve of a pivotal presentation by Colin Powell.

By Mario Tama, Getty Images
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell held a vial of anthrax in trying to demonstrate to the U.N. Feb. 5, 2003 the threat Iraq posed.

That next morning, at the U.N. Security Council's horseshoe table, with CIA chief Tenet behind him, the secretary of state delivered an 80-minute indictment of Iraq, complete with aluminum tubes, up to "500 tons of chemical weapons agent," and artist's conceptions of Curveball's questionable "mobile labs."

Powell's sources went unidentified, tapes of intercepted conversation were cryptic, claims made about satellite photos were uncorroborated.

It turned out the State Department's own analysts had warned, futilely, against saying vehicles in spy photos were chemical "decontamination trucks," since they might be simple water trucks. And a senior CIA officer has told investigators he raised the Curveball concerns with Tenet the night before the speech, something Tenet denies.

After watching the performance on CNN in Baghdad, Amer al-Saadi, Iraqi liaison for the inspections, lamented that "the fiction goes on. It goes on and on."

But Powell's sober authority worked in America, where support for action soared.

Staunch against 'So-called inspections'

On the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, Blix's inspectors grew frustrated at the Iraqis' failure to explain leftover discrepancies from the 1990s. The chief inspector emphasized, however, that "unaccounted for" didn't necessarily mean weapons existed.

In one example, former Iraqi bioweapons specialists would eventually tell U.S. arms hunters that they never documented destruction of one batch of their anthrax in 1991 because it was dumped near a Saddam palace. They feared the dictator's wrath.

By January 2003, the experts from Blix's U.N. commission and Mohamed ElBaradei's IAEA had inspected 13 major "facilities of concern" from the previous fall's U.S. and British reports, and found no signs of weapons-making. The IAEA publicly exposed the Niger document as a forgery, and found the aluminum tubes poor candidates for centrifuges. Checking supposed sites for manufacturing mobile labs, Blix's teams debunked Curveball's tale at the Iraq end.

Washington was unmoved. Administration loyalists dismissed the "so-called inspections." In late February 2003, a Powell aide sternly told Blix nothing would suffice short of Iraq's unveiling its "secret hide sites." Most significantly, Bush ordered no reassessment of his government's collapsing claims.

Blix told the Security Council he could complete the work within months. The White House wasn't interested. "More time, more inspectors, more process, in our judgment, is not going to affect the peace of the world," Bush said on March 6, as the Pentagon counted down toward war.

Cheney at one point even told a TV audience — without challenge from the host — that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons. Of ElBaradei, whose IAEA refuted the claims about uranium and tubes, Cheney said, "I think Mr. ElBaradei, frankly, is wrong." But the CIA had already accepted ElBaradei's judgment on the Niger uranium document.

WMDs: 'That is what this war was about'

On March 17, in New York, U.S. diplomats gave up trying to win Security Council backing for war. That evening, on television, Bush told the American people there was "no doubt" Iraq had "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

The bombing began two days later, and as U.S. troops swept up the Tigris and Euphrates plain to easy victory, they searched for WMD. "We know where they are," Rumsfeld claimed on March 30. But despite a flurry of false "finds" by eager troops, they weren't there.

Finally, on April 19, U.S. weapons hunters celebrated: An equipment-packed truck trailer had been seized in northern Iraq.

By Patrick Baz, AFP/Getty Images
A U.S. bomb explodes in Baghdad on March 20, 2003.

Just before the war, al-Kindi company technicians had tested the unit and it worked, its tubes spewing hydrogen for weather balloons. They could deliver on the 2001 contract. To empty-handed U.S. analysts, however, the vehicle and a second trailer looked like the artist's conception of Curveball's mobile labs, ready to concoct killer germs.

The White House embraced this illusion. "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories," President Bush assured Polish television on May 29. By then, however, experts had tested a trailer and found no trace of pathogens or toxins.

"They have weapons of mass destruction. That is what this war was about," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on April 10. But soon the Washington line shifted to claims Iraq had not weapons, but WMD "programs" — also untrue, inspectors later certified. Then the war was framed as one to democratize Iraq.

Through 2003, Iraqis watched their land slip into a chaos of looting, terror bombings and anti-American insurgency. "A country was destroyed because of weapons that don't exist!" Baghdad University's president, Nihad Mohammed al-Rawi, despaired to an AP reporter.

Month by month, David Kay and his 1,500-member Iraq Survey Group labored over documents, visited sites, interrogated detained scientists and came to recognize reality. But when he wanted to report it, Kay ran into roadblocks in Washington.

"There was an absolutely closed mind," Kay tells AP. "They would not look at alternative explanations in these cases," specifically the aluminum tubes and bioweapons trailers.

In December 2003, Kay flew back to Washington and met with Tenet and CIA deputy John McLaughlin. "I couldn't budge John, and so I couldn't budge George," he says. Kay resigned, telling the U.S. Congress there had been no WMD threat.

Ex-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, speaking for Tenet, points out that Kay himself, in Senate testimony at the time, said the tubes remained an "open question," although it was "more than probable" they were rocket casings.

'Fool's gold'

The Bush administration then sent Charles Duelfer — like Kay a senior U.N. inspector from the 1990s — to take over the arms hunt. He arrived in time for Tenet's secret visit and palace pep talk on Feb. 12, 2004, but, like Kay before him, Duelfer could find no sign of WMD.

Still, the pressure continued. Barton, recruited as a Duelfer adviser, told AP the American chief inspector received an e-mail that March from John Scarlett, head of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, urging that nine "nuggets," past allegations, be dropped back into an interim report by Duelfer's group.

Those "sexy bits," as the Australian called them, are believed to have included, for example, baseless speculation that Iraq worked to weaponize smallpox. Duelfer called the nuggets "fool's gold," Barton says, and left them out.

Asked about this, the British Foreign Office said Scarlett contacted Iraq Survey Group leaders as part of his job, but that the report's content was Duelfer's responsibility alone.

Barton said CIA officers in the Iraq Survey Group insisted that its reporting should not discredit the mobile-labs story "because that contradicts what Tenet has said." They also wanted the report to suggest the tubes might have been for centrifuges, although Duelfer's experts concluded otherwise.

Duelfer's interim testimony to Congress in March 2004 said nothing about mobile labs and said the tubes remained under study.

As late as Sept. 30 last year, in an election debate, Bush stuck to his views.

"Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming," Bush maintained.

A week before, Duelfer had conveyed his 1,000-page final report to the CIA, saying Saddam had disarmed 13 years earlier.

Note: This reconstruction of what happened on the road to war in Iraq is based on government inquiries, official documents, fresh interviews and other sources.

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